How to Apologize: Making an Effective Mea Culpa

If you’re human, you have most likely done something(s) in your life that’s warranted an apology. We all make mistakes. And we all, at some point in our lives (whether intentionally or not), have hurt someone about whom we care.

To err is, indeed, human. But if we generally accept that making mistakes is common, why is it that so many of us have a hard time sincerely apologizing? Or, more puzzlingly, why is it that some of us, fully conscious that we have made a mistake, refuse to admit any wrongdoing?

Check Your Ego

It seems that perhaps the main thing that gets in the way of most effective communication is ego. How, you ask? If you see an apology as a sign of personal weakness, you might also believe that making a mistake is a character flaw rather than an understandable human tendency. Your ego will always try to protect you from humility – and it can create an unbalanced relationship with your sense of self and, therefore, your ability to be accountable for your actions.

The intellectual irony here is that while the unbalanced ego tries to create a sense of strength by refusing to admit a mistake, what it’s actually doing is exposing insecurities. In this case, that’s the fear of being seen as weak, exactly what your ego is trying to protect you from feeling in the first place.

Be Accountable

Accountability is key to delivering an effective apology. In fact, it is the most important aspect of any expression of regret. Being accountable means being able to graciously admit you were wrong, that you made a mistake, and that you understand the impact of your actions. Further, it indicates that you will try not to repeat them.

Anyone can say “I’m sorry.” But many of us get caught in the trap of apology as social etiquette (see: Canadian apologetic stereotypes), not as a means to take responsibility for one’s actions. But in order for an ask for forgiveness to be effective, it must be active, not delivered by rote. This means that an apology should be backed by self-awareness — a drive to understand why the apology is needed in the first place. A rote apology is merely the performance of accountability. It doesn’t validate the person to whom you are apologizing.

Validation is Key

Validation is key — that is, when you are accountable, you validate the feelings of the person you have injured. It’s also key to how your apology will be received. It tells someone that you actually care. And while some might be happy with a simple apology made up of a few words, others might be looking for a sign that you understand what you did wrong — and how you realized it. Be ready to have that dialogue. Know that if you’re not, your expression of regret may be read as a “sorry, not sorry” statement and interpreted as follows:

  1. I will not give effort to unpacking, processing, and owning how my actions caused harm.
  2. My lack of effort to do the above will eventually lead me to repeating the same mistake.
  3. I do not value the person to whom I am apologizing enough to do the emotional labor it takes to understand the impact of my actions, take accountability and validate their feelings..

So: remember that an apology is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you have the courage to admit that you made a booboo and that the person in front of you deserves validation. It says you understand how you mistreated them and that you have a plan of action to prevent a repeat. Apologizing is a sign of strength. To build that muscle, here are some tips to build an effective apology:

5 Steps to Building an Effective Apology

  1. Triple A – Accountability, Awareness, Action. “I know what I did. Here’s what I did. Here’s what I’m doing to change that behavior.”
  2. Validate. Be willing to agree that you've caused harm and show that you understand how. This helps rebuild trust..
  3. Do not demand or expect forgiveness. Don’t get angry if somebody can’t accept your apology. It doesn’t mean it was worthless. It might simply mean that the other party is not ready. Unfortunately, it may also mean that you crossed a significant boundary. Some mistakes have lasting consequences. They may just not forgive you, for a while at least. This doesn't take power away from you! Commit to the work of taking accountability. A lesson learned now means avoiding the same mistake later.
  4. Check your ego at the door. The ego is not our enemy but it needs balance. If you feel defensive, it most likely means you are still trying to preserve your pride (i.e. your ego). Practice being comfortable in humility so that you can effectively deliver an apology, feeling a sense of personal strength at the same time.
  5. Never say “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This phrase is not so good - what it transmits to somebody is not sincerity or accountability but, “I’m sorry you can’t handle what I did.” And what that says is that the other person must suck it up.


A professional apology can sometimes require reigning in the emotion that may infuse a personal apology to someone with whom you’re more familiar. The number one rule of a professional apology is: never make an attempt to excuse the behavior that led you to the apology. Own the error, make your statement direct, and show commitment to progress in the experience.

This depends on the context, but in short, yes. An apology is acceptable in a text when that medium might be less overwhelming to the person to whom you’re apologizing.

I mean, you can, but will it be an effective apology? Probably not. Rather than seeing it as admitting guilt, could you see it as taking accountability for your actions?

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